Merkel’s CDU party to choose new leader at January online congress

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right CDU on Monday said the party will choose its new leader at a congress next month that will be held online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Merkel's CDU party to choose new leader at January online congress
Merkel in Berlin on Sunday. Photo: DPA

The January 15-16 meeting will be the CDU's first digital congress and the format was chosen “in close coordination” with the three men vying for the top job, the CDU said in a series of tweets.

Corporate lawyer Friedrich Merz, centrist foreign affairs expert Norbert Röttgen and Armin Laschet, the premier of Germany's most populous North Rhine-Westphalia state, are all vying for the post.

The winner will be picked by 1,001 CDU delegates on the second congress day. The choice will be confirmed by postal ballots afterwards that will not feature the names of the two unsuccessful candidates, the CDU said.

The chief of the Christian Democratic Union traditionally leads it and its smaller Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) to the polls.

READ ALSO: Merkel's CDU party postpones conference to elect leader over pandemic

The chosen candidate would be the frontrunner to replace Merkel as chancellor should the conservative bloc win next year's general election on September 26.

Merkel, who has been in power since 2005, plans to step down after finishing her fourth term at the helm of Europe's top economic power.

Her protegee Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer took over as CDU leader in 2018.

But she resigned just a few months into the post over her handling of a regional election scandal, throwing the race for the top job wide open.

The battle has since been overshadowed by the pandemic and the congress has been postponed twice already.

The decision for a virtual congress comes as Germany struggles to cope with a second coronavirus wave that has brought record daily infection numbers and deaths.

The country is set to go back into a partial lockdown from Wednesday, with schools and non-essentials shops to stay closed until at least January 10th.

The crisis has made it hard for the three CDU hopefuls to create real momentum for their leadership bids, while surveys suggest many Germans would prefer to see Bavarian premier Markus Söder from the CSU as their next chancellor.

Söder's robust response to the pandemic has won him widespread praise and given him a national spotlight. But he has repeatedly ruled out running, insisting that his place “is in Bavaria”.

Merz, a 65-year-old millionaire and old Merkel rival, is the favourite choice among CDU voters, surveys show.

READ ALSO: Merkel rival Merz in a bid to succeed her as German chancellor

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Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

The last time Germany hosted a G7 summit, then-chancellor Angela Merkel produced a series of viral images with Barack Obama, clinking giant mugs in a traditional Bavarian beer garden and communing against a verdant Alpine backdrop.

Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

Her successor Olaf Scholz, hobbled in domestic opinion polls and of modest global stature, may struggle to match that convivial atmosphere when leaders gather again from Sunday.

The centrist Scholz, 64, assumed the presidency of the Group of Seven rich countries in January, just a month after taking office in Berlin.

Since then his handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, soaring inflation and energy supply complications have put his government to the test while sending his approval ratings plunging.

READ ALSO: Opinion – Scholz is already out of step at Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Scholz told parliament on Wednesday he was ready to seize the three days of talks at the Elmau Castle mountain resort – the same remote, picturesque venue Merkel chose in 2015 – to burnish Germany’s global image and the standing of the West.

“In Europe’s biggest security crisis for decades, Germany as the economically strongest and most populous country in the EU is assuming special responsibility – and not just for its own security but also for the security of its allies,” he said.

A series of summits in the coming days must show “that G7, EU and NATO are as united as ever” and that the “democracies of the world are standing together in the fight against (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s imperialism,” Scholz said.

READ ALSO: Germany tightens border controls ahead of G7 summit

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Olivier Matthys

‘Merkel tradition’

Joachim Trebbe, a professor of political communication at Berlin’s Free University, said Scholz had a “huge opportunity” with the G7 to dispel any doubts about his leadership skills or resolve against the Russian president.

“At the start of his term and even when the war began, Scholz was quite reserved – perhaps a little bit in the tradition of Ms Merkel,” a
still-popular conservative the Social Democratic chancellor has sought to emulate, Trebbe said.

She also “tended to manage crises and didn’t pay much attention to informing the media at every step”.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel sit during a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 as part of the G7 summit.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 during the G7 summit. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

After accusations of foot-dragging, Scholz’s attempts at a reset were on display during a long-delayed visit to Kyiv last week, joined by the leaders of France, Italy and Romania.

A journalist from the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung travelling with the chancellor noted that he had a tendency to make gaffes under pressure – like “an old tap that either releases ice-cold or boiling water”.


His trouble finding the middle ground had led him to exercise too much caution when it came to sending weapons to Ukraine, or too little, as when on a visit to Lithuania this month he significantly overstated German arms deliveries.   

The chancellor, whose sometimes robotic style has earned him the nickname Scholzomat, has also found himself outflanked in his own unwieldy ruling coalition of his Social Democrats (SPD), ecologist Greens and liberal Free Democrats.

A poll this week showed that the Greens – with popular Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, both credited with clearer messaging on Ukraine — were leading the SPD in voter intentions for the first time since July 2021.

Both parties, however, are currently trailing the conservative opposition, which has relentlessly criticised Scholz’s Ukraine and energy policies as too timid.

READ ALSO: Why has Germany been so slow to deliver weapons to Ukraine?

Trebbe said that initiatives at the G7 bearing Scholz’s imprint on issues including future political and economic support for Ukraine, climate
protection and strengthening democracies worldwide were crucial if he hoped to gain political tailwinds from the summit.

But he said the gathering was nearly as much about generating images, such as the instant meme of Merkel, arms outstretched, explaining her world view to a nonchalant Obama, draped in repose on a wooden bench.

“That’s where symbols of unity, common strategy and strong leadership are created,” Trebbe said.

“I’m pretty sure Scholz has a team of professionals ready to take full advantage of that aspect of the summit.”

By Deborah COLE